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Flyfishing in Saltwaters Magazine: May/June 2003



No Easy Answers in the Debate over No-Fishing Zones

By Capt. John McMurray


“Radicals”… “extremists”… those who are involved in a “conspiracy to take away” our “family fishing fun.”  These are all words that have been used lately to describe “environmentalists,” specifically those who support the idea of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  “No-take zone” is perhaps a better phrase to describe these proposed marine sanctuaries.  They are areas closed to any sort of fishing pressure.   If you’re a regular reader of any of the glossy fishing magazines, you know that the issue is a contentious one.  Various recreational fishing advocacy groups are up in arms about their freedom to fish, and rightfully so in some cases.  But the issue is far more complicated than recent editorials have made it out to be.  As program officer for an environmental conservation foundation and an avid recreational fisherman, my exposure to both sides of the story has been extensive.   Of course there is not enough room to go into all the details in this column, but in as few words as possible I will try to let you know what I know about MPAs.  It’s up to you to decide whether they are worth sacrificing totally open access for the angling public. 


It’s common knowledge these days that our marine fisheries are not being managed adequately.   Despite the data gaps inherent in marine science there is little doubt that globally, marine ecosystems are in dire straits. Estimates suggest that fishing pressure worldwide is two and a half times greater than what is considered sustainable.  Fishes that once supported the livelihood of commercial fishermen are nearly gone, and what were once considered “trash fish” are now being targeted in their place as the industry works its way down the food chain.  Nationally and internationally, too many boats are working to kill too few fish. The demand is expected to increase 40% worldwide in the next decadePretty scary stuff, and of great concern to those of us that maintain our sanity in a crazy world by the simple act of fishing.   


Locally, nationally and internationally, the problem, without a doubt, lies in the failure of various management councils to implement effective conservation measures to insure the future viability of fish stocks.  This has happened because fishery managers are tasked with not only the health of fish stocks, and the preservation of valuable habitat, but with evaluating the economic impact of implementing conservation measures.  When creating or amending management plans, managers base their decisions not only on the good of the resource, but also for the good of those who depend on it for a living.  Similarly, on the legislative side, no elected official wants to lose votes by causing mom-and-pop fishing operations to go out of business while industrial fleets and entire towns in their district or state suffer considerable hardship.  The unfortunate side-effect is that the resource suffers greatly.  There is constant rhetoric on the unreliability of data that points directly to the bald fact that we are overfishing.  The end results are watered down, ineffective regulations.  Traditional fishery management involving meaningful size and bag limits has not failed; it's just never been completely put into practice. After all that’s been written and said, managers are still trying to maximize kill, play politics with the various industry groups and minimize restrictions placed on the fishery while practicing a complete lack of foresight and planning.  Nothing leads me to believe that this will ever change.  Without intervention it is likely that the existing system will lead to the eventual successive depletion of the last resilient species.  


With that grim outlook and no conventional remedy in sight, various environmental groups have been aggressively touting MPAs as a cure-all solution.  Their reasoning lies in the premonition that drastic times call for drastic measures.  In one fell swoop environmentalists claim these no-take zones will protect coastal ecosystems and habitat, improve scientific understanding of marine ecosystems and provide opportunities for non-extractive use. 


The concept of MPAs is certainly not a new one. For centuries, communities have closed areas to protect their resources.  Their significance in today’s fisheries conservation debate is that historically natural sanctuaries are disappearing at an exponential rate.  Twenty years ago, if one spot was overfished, fish had the ability to proliferate in other areas that were yet undiscovered.  Today the sheer number of fishermen, both recreational and commercial, as well as the advent of technology to run great distances and to pinpoint areas that fish frequent, have severely limited all natural refuge under water.  Wherever fish go and wherever they are, those that seek them can and will find them.  The current popularity of MPAs as a solution stems from the idea that by artificially restoring these sanctuaries by designating a system of closed areas of critical importance, it will allow fish to spawn, feed and thrive undisturbed.  Studies further point to the fact that fishermen will benefit from sanctuary overflow. 


However, opponents, mostly recreational users, believe that these closed areas will only impact certain resident ground fishes and that migratory species will be completely unaffected.  For this reason, some believe fishing for migratory species should be allowed in these proposed zones.  While there might not be any solid data proving otherwise, it seems logical to environmentalists that certain fish will have a better chance of getting from point A to point B if they don’t have to pass by thousands clam bellies imbedded with hooks in addition to gillnets, dragging gear etc...   Recreational advocacy groups further claim that there is lack of hard evidence regarding the effectiveness of these Marine Parks.  According to environmental groups, there is, in fact, plenty of data supporting the assumption that marine reserves do protect marine organisms as well as habitat (Roberts, Bohnsack, Gell, Hawkins, Goodridge etc...)  Recreational fishing interests believe all of these studies have major holes and don’t prove anything conclusively.  Environmentalists argue, however, that this is the nature of marine science and we must rely on the best available knowledge.  The current practice of placing the burden of proof on fishery scientists by requiring overwhelming evidence before limitations are placed allowed for the groundfish collapse in New England.   It has been the commercial industry’s strategy for the last twenty years.  It’s entirely possible that if we wait for rock solid data on MPAs, which might never be possible, it could be too late in coming. 


Recreational fishing groups also argue that closing areas to commercial fishermen would suffice as a solution.  While it’s easy to point the proverbial finger at the commercial industry, recreational fishing is not without blame.  As a user group we do cause a significant amount of mortality.  If you don’t think so, take a look at some of the numbers.  A good example is striped bass in New York.  The total recreational catch for striped bass dwarfs that of the commercial fishermen.  Even if you release most or all of the stripers you hook, you are not without blame.  There is a very significant release mortality which, when you take into account the sheer number of anglers targeting striped bass, accounts for a tremendous amount of dead fish.  Especially hard hit are the larger fish – the breeders with the best genes. Regardless, there is no doubt that commercials do the most killing and habitat damage.  While we would all very much like to see large tracts of ocean shut down to commercial trawling, longlining, gill nets etc., it seems a bit hypocritical to those on the outside, unless we are willing to accept some sort of closure on our end.  With that being said, powerful enviro groups, fisheries managers, and legislators cannot justifiably tout commercial gear restrictions without similar restrictions for recreational fishermen.  Politically, it’s not feasible to limit the resource for use by only one user group and not the other.  However, Charles Witek from the Coastal Conservation Association points out that if anglers are proven to be part of the problem, only then should they be part of the solution.  Charlie states that “anglers shouldn't be treated the same as commercials out of "fairness," but each group should be regulated with a view toward their unique impacts (i.e., anglers shouldn't be closed out of a sensitive area because trawls damage the bottom) and, most importantly, when the problem is addressed, and regulated angling could be permitted without harm to the resource, it must be permitted, and not outlawed for all eternity.”  That’s pretty much the gist of the Freedom to Fish Act introduced by Senators John Breaux (D, MS) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, TX) last August.


Undoubtedly, the vast majority of recreational fishermen, and even more so flyfishermen, are, in fact, conservationists and environmentalists.  Indeed, the hook-and-bullet crowd (hunters and fishermen) are perhaps the best and most effective environmentalists out there.  We understand the immense value of open space, clean water, critical habitat and species and ecosystem protection.   Angling reconnects us to our hunter and gatherer instincts and in doing so it gives us a sense of wholeness, even if it is only for a few hours a week.  Environmentalists and anglers are natural allies, and it is very foolish to risk a split between the hunter/fisherman/conservation communities and the wider generalist
environmental groups.  However, the knee jerk, negative reaction towards environmental groups by some recreational advocacy groups seems entirely justified in some cases. 


The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) recently published a map of proposed closures in the mid-Atlantic.  They're not proposing a closure of a few popular offshore spots, they are recommending closing just about everywhere any anglers fish offshore.  There are similar attempts to close down large tracts inshore as well.  It’s a simple fact that the recommended closing of 20% of all oceans equates to roughly 75% of productive fishing grounds.  That’s just not going to fly.  Anglers have been at the forefront of marine conservation since the beginning.  Take fishermen out of the equation and you take out the most valuable player in marine conservation efforts.  If they insist on 20%, or more accurately 75%, then the recreational stance will continue to remain at 0%.   Many enviro groups are not aiming for huge closures that remove recreational fishermen permanently.  Moderate enviro groups believe relatively small areas containing the appropriate sampling of habitat types could be designed as marine reserves.  Scientists claim that establishing a system of these very small no-take zones in a number of areas would minimize interference with anglers while assisting the recovery of certain habitat and fish stocks. Such a system could provide overflow benefits to fishermen.  The scientific value of the reserves would be great as well, as professionals could assess the effects of fishing by having untouched areas with a natural abundance of marine life as a reference point.  Coupled with conventional management, they would further provide insurance against unanticipated fishing mortality, unforeseen management errors, or drastic ecological changes. 


Arbitrarily prohibiting private citizens from a public resource is, no doubt, bad policy.  Large closures like the ones recommended by NRDC are completely unacceptable. 
But most recreational fishing interests I’ve spoken with agree that if used judiciously, MPAs can be legitimate fishery management tools.  If the communication gap can be bridged and the mud-slinging stopped, then both groups might find that their ideas are not so far apart.   It’s important to keep an open mind about setting aside smaller dispersed areas of important habitat types, however, the fear is that if the recreational fishermen give an inch then advocates of MPAs will take a mile, both figuratively and literally.  This can only be mitigated by stopping the negative rhetoric and sitting down with our natural allies in the general environmental sector and hammering out agreements.  Undoubtedly, the answer lies in finding a reasonable middle ground.  Fringe groups like PETA are pretty ridiculous in my book and don’t even have a place in this debate.  They are not, by any rational definition, environmentalists.   The vast majority of environmental non-profits are most certainly not out to take away anybody’s opportunity to wet a line.  They want exactly what we want: Healthy and abundant marine resource